Adam Barr learns to how stop feeling guilty from travelling and give his kids a special coming-home gift—himself.
When I was a television reporter, I traveled a lot. Much of my experience of my son’s infancy was punctuated by bouts of packing, leaving, and returning. I was around enough for us to bond, but there is no question I missed some milestones.
I was covering the 2001 Masters at golf tournament when, on the Wednesday of that week, my pager buzzed and displayed this message:
“At 4:20 p.m. today, your son rolled over.”
He was five months old then; the message was from my wife. Don’t worry, though. The pager was on silent, and the conduct police at Augusta National Golf Club were none the wiser.
I kept that message on my pager for months. I deleted everything around it, but never that message itself. I looked at it over and over, and recall how I felt at the moment I first read it—a mixture of pride and “Dammit!” I also reminded myself that whatever moments I could gather, I should make sure to make them count.
My challenge was certainly not unusual. Every week, I walked in airports, shoulder to nervous shoulder with hundreds of other parents wrestling with the same specific problem of modernity. Whereas mothers and fathers in older generations often worked closer to home, and could even bring a maturing child into their businesses with them, modern workers often have to be away. The stresses that this condition causes sound like a symptom list—loneliness, guilt, sadness, and on and on—but there is no medicine. Only workarounds.
Many people manage the stress of travel separation by sacrificing another interest or activity. But in the end, the most successful part-time absentee parents simply resolve to spend a substantial amount of their limited spare time with their kids. It’s that simple.
Or is it? I have spoken to a number of parents, mostly dads, who struggle with their time with their kids. “What should we do?” “I worry that he’s bored.” “I want to make the most of it, but sometimes I feel like it’s just something she waits through.” Of course, a lot depends on the kid’s personality.
But, you’re likely doing better than you think. Thinking about maximizing your kid time is the biggest and most important step for a road warrior. It’s bigger than what you say when you’re together, or what you do, or whether you remembered the child-squealed admonition to “bring me something!” from wherever you were.
My evidence? My kid’s mood after we’ve reconnected. When I get home late at night from a trip and we get in the car next morning to go to school, his body language tells me that he is relieved and at ease. When we manage a half hour of bass fishing after dinner, his walk is relaxed and he recounts goofy episodes from the playground that day. He is free with hugs. He has questions about where I’ve been and what I saw.
This happens even if we don’t have particularly meaningful conversations during our time together. There is no need to fill up every moment or banish a long silence—just as with old friends. I can only conclude he is glad I am there, as I am glad he is. The ease that comes from that joy will set the stage for any deeper conversations he may need or want.
I long ago stopped chiding myself for near-silent rides to school or 10 minutes of shooting baskets without much talk. I know my boy is happy to be by my side, and I’m glad to have him there. And the way I see it, no minute spent with him is a waste, no matter what’s on the work agenda.
This is why I now chuckle instead of grimace when I recall another travel episode from my TV reporter days. I was dressed, packed, and ready, waiting for the airport limo in a living room chair across from the sofa. My wife was holding my baby son’s hands so he could stand up.
“C’mon to Dad,” I said with a smile, spreading my arms. And he let go of her hands and stepped over to me. I gathered him up, beaming.
“Wow!” I said. “His first steps?”
“Um… yeah,” my wife said, looking away.
For a split second, I was crestfallen. But then I smiled. Part of the traveling life, and she was just trying to spare my feelings. Sure, I thought… not his first steps.
But his first ones to me.
Photo: Official U.S. Navy Imagery flickr